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On North Korea: Leaders Great and Dear, and Literature

By Susan Harris

The opacity that his obituaries attribute to Kim Jong-il extends to North Korean literary culture. WWB has published a fair amount of writing from the country, starting with our second issue in September 2003, Writing from North Korea, and continuing with our anthology Literature from the "Axis of Evil": Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other "Enemy Nations" and the more recent comics translated and contextualized by Heinz Insu Fenkl. Given our mission of promoting global understanding through literature, particularly from those countries that Americans know through a strictly political prism, North Korea was a natural choice. We knew that much of North Korean literature was propaganda, but assumed the country would have an underground literary network in which dissident authors wrote in code and smuggled their work out to the free world. Rather than samizdat, though, we discovered that North Korea produces nothing but propaganda, written and distributed as an ideological tool. Only members of the Choson Writers Alliance, the official literary organization, can publish; their outlets are restricted to the official magazine, Chosun Munhak, or state-run publishers, and their bylines appear without bios. Fiction exalts the Great Leader and promotes the Juche ideology of self-reliance, autonomy, and independence. The young musical genius in "A Tale of Music," in the anthology, abandons his career for work as a stonemason, in the service of the Great Leader; the visiting foreign journalist in "Second Encounter" exclaims, "This indeed is a nation that knows neither desperation (chôlmang) nor anxiety (puran), a land filled with confidence in the future... ." Comic books are produced explicitly to indoctrinate children in Juche: the margins of Great General Mighty Wing are festooned with hortatory slogans ("Snuff out a fire before it spreads and squash dissent before it takes root"), and the hero of Blizzard in the Jungle strikes noble poses alluding to the Great Leader.  In the case of North Korea, the literature provides only too accurate a portrait of the nation's culture.

Published Dec 20, 2011   Copyright 2011 Susan Harris

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